Oxford Circus Chiaroscuro

"There's a reason they call it a circus" - overheard commuter

I don't know much about art or painting so I've never known what the word 'chiaroscuro' meant. I still didn't when I took these the other day. I was just playing with the harsh sunlight and deep shadows amongst the craziness of Oxford Circus during rush hour. Then yesterday, by coincidence, I was reading a book and I learned that that's what chiaroscuro is. It's the technique of using light and shade in pictorial representation. The artistic distribution of light and dark masses in a picture. (Italian: chiar = bright + oscuro = dark). So there you go.

Going Coastal

It is the dead of night and I'm lying wide awake in a crappy room, in a crappy guesthouse in Southend-on-Sea, a favourite coastal resort in Essex's blue collar heartland, where generations of holidaymakers have sought respite from the travails of working-class life by sitting on a shingle beach and gazing into the grey waters of the Thames estuary. Here, as in similar towns across the country, gangs of teenage girls in too-short skirts teeter on impossibly high heels, bar hopping in celebration of a 21st birthday or an impending marriage; young men get into drunken brawls outside pubs and nightclubs and families seek out the bright lights and primary colours of the theme park rides and amusement arcades.

In the street outside my window, a loudly contested dispute has finally moved elsewhere but is replaced by the sharp clatter of a discarded beer can rolling around in the sea breeze. The noise is so loud it seems to reverberate around my skull, denying me the chance of sleep. After what seems like hours of this auditory torture I can stand it no longer. I venture outside, half naked, in search of the source of my torment. I wander around in the gloom, peer under parked cars, scan the road, but the can is nowhere in sight, and indeed from that moment on it will remain silent, as though some unseen force is toying with me. I return to the room expecting the clatter to resume the instant I am back in bed but instead it is replaced by the relentless, muffled rantings of a drunken lunatic in the guesthouse next door who conspires with my snoring roommates to make worse my insomnia. The forecast for the rest of the week is for rain and a planned rail strike has scuppered any hope of an early escape back to London.

My two travelling companions are friends and fellow photographers. We are grown men and between us have three mortgages, one marriage, two children and another forthcoming - mine. Why are we staying in this shit-hole? Why do we embark on these absurd odysseys, these fool's errands? Perhaps to satisfy an obsessive desire, a compulsion, to document the human condition (or "life today", as William Eggleston once put it) in all its fascinating diversity. Or to feed an addiction to the momentary excitement, the visceral high, of discovering a good picture on a contact sheet or laptop screen. Or perhaps, like the drunken lunatic next door, we are simply madmen.  View Images »»

Road Trip USA

A gloriously sunny Autumn day; a Ford Mustang with the top down; Ian 'Chief Wherethefuckarewe' Teh riding shotgun with a big Cheshire cat grin on his face; the Pacific Ocean 3,500 miles to the west. So began our photographer's road trip cliché across the USA, on a route that would take us along the Appalachian Trail, through Pennsylvania and Virginia, then south to North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana before heading west to California through New Mexico, Texas and Arizona.

We soon learnt the hard way that post 9/11 America was a mighty paranoid place. The seemingly aimless meanderings of two suspicious looking strangers in a rental car were enough to bring the unwelcome attention of the police on numerous occasions. The most serious of these found us standing in the blazing Louisiana sun waiting to be questioned by the FBI while a small group of redneck cops took a special interest in my dodgy-looking, Anglo-Malaysian companion's British passport, which they passed around and pored over, as though it might reveal, coded within its pages, the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden himself. When Mulder and Scully finally showed up, their razor-sharp FBI interrogation training was mercilessly deployed. "You boys ain't terrorists now are ya?" was - I kid you not - one particularly memorable question. After this farcical yet unsettling scene had been played out and we were allowed on our way I had one question for Ian: "Mate, what's up with your passport?" He handed it over to me in silence. Plastered across the entire first page was an enormous entry visa from the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. I was still laughing my arse off twenty miles later as we crossed Lake Pontchartrain into New Orleans.

Avoiding the huge, sprawling metropolises, we went in search of small town America. My romanticised vision of this fabled place was drawn from a lifetime's exposure to American literature, Hollywood cinema, the songs of Randy Newman and Bob Dylan and, of course, Robert Frank's seminal photobook The Americans. But the reality left me frustrated and restless, gripped by a powerful urge to keep moving, as if the real America might be found around the next corner or in the next town; because to drive across this vast country is to face up to the stark discrepancy between popular mythology and the mind-numbing banality of small town life, where each place appears to be a facsimile of the last. This is the real America, with its malls, chain motels and carbon-copy main streets chock-a-block with fast food outlets and gas stations yet often strangely bereft of life. The lovely old bloke we came across in one no-horse town seemed to be the sole living occupant (above). He had acquiesced to his wife's wish to relocate from the vibrant, urban bustle of Chicago to Nowheresville, Alabama, and the poor man was practically suicidal with boredom, though he still made us laugh with his good-natured ranting: "I'm a city boy! I loved Chicago! Look at me now, standing in the street like a damned fool!" I imagined myself in his position and felt desperately homesick on his behalf, yet part of the pleasure of travel, as Jean Baudrillard observed, is "to dive into places where others are compelled to live and come out unscathed, full of the malicious pleasure of abandoning them to their fate." We jumped back in the car, wished him luck and did exactly that.  View images »»